California Authors

 
 

Questar Assessment, Inc. - Educational Assessment Products

Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948)
by Janice Albert

First editions at Stanford

Most Californians no longer recognize the name of Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948). Even after publication of a comprehensive biography, many readers may find her difficult to like. In many ways a shallow thinker, she missed the chance to meet Oscar Wilde because she didn’t like his looks. Jealous of her own reputation, she spread the rumor that Edith Wharton didn’t actually write The House of Mirth. Thinking herself to belong to aristocracy, she looked down on ordinary people, believing that there was merit in monarchy.

When her friend Ambrose Bierce tried to kiss her, she not only rebuffed him, but told the story over and over of the great Bierce making a pass at her beside a pigsty.

Her life story is often reduced to a handful of anecdotes—of how she married into the Atherton family and became the daughter-in-law of Dominga de Goña Atherton, a Chilean Catholic with Castilian blood. Of how she took up writing after the death of her son. Of how her husband George died at sea and was shipped home in a cask of rum. Of how she turned her daughter over to relatives and left California in pursuit of a writing career. Of how her first novel, The Randolphs of Redwoods, was discovered to be the thinly disguised story of a socially prominent family of alcoholics.

Emily Wortis Leider, in her biography California’s Daughter: Gertrude Atherton and her Times (Stanford UP 1991), tells us that Atherton, née Gertrude Horn, was born into a family of shaky finances. When her parents divorced, her mother set about to rescue the situation by re-marrying. Gertrude’s own upbringing was secondary to her mother’s primary goal of keeping her youthful good looks in order to attract a second husband, which she did, marrying John Uhlhorn in 1865 when Gertrude was eight years old. When Uhlhorn left them, Gertrude formed an attachment to her grandfather, who gave her books to read. Her schooling was spotty because of money and her own bad behavior.

Her marriage to George Atherton at the age of 18 surprised everyone because he had actually come to court her mother. Their first child, George, was born when Gertrude was just nineteen, living with the Athertons under the watchful eye of her mother-in-law. For eleven years, she lived a domestic life, this girl who had never learned to cook or to sew and who had no interest in homemaking.

At her husband’s death in 1887, she was released from a life she had never wanted. She learned that she could entertain herself, pass the time, imagine her own fame by sitting at a writing desk and scratching out in longhand the stories that came into her head. Eventually she wrote a bookshelf of novels as well as critical articles, opinion pieces, travel narratives, a 600-page autobiography, and numerous letters to friends and publishers. She moved to New York, then to England and Germany. Her most famous collection of short stories “Before the Gringo Came,” commemorating life during the Californio period before the discovery of gold and statehood, was re-published under the title, The Splendid Idle Forties. She supported herself with her pen, and sent money home to support her half-sisters and her daughter Muriel. Aware that her writing was not high art, she nonetheless experimented with literary forms such as plays and film scripts and produced a biographical novel of Alexander Hamilton (The Conqueror) that is read today.

She carried the name of California to the East Coast and to Europe and created a picture of the California woman as independent, morally upright, able to speak her mind, and disdainful of soft, hesitant, compromising, lackluster men. If we put Atherton beside California’s other nineteenth century female writers—Louise Clappe and Ina Coolbrith—we must draw some conclusions. Whereas Louise Clappe had the ambition to follow her husband to the mines and the energy to record their adventures on the Feather River, when her marriage ended, she stayed in San Francisco and taught school, ending her literary career. When Ina Coolbrith watched her friends Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Joaquin Miller leave for the East, she stayed behind to take care of her sister’s children and to raise Miller’s baby. Coolbrith’s energy went into mentoring others, including the boy Jack London.

Atherton, however, made her way by teaching herself the facts of the publishing industry, by making calls and pursuing introductions, by generating ideas, doing her homework and meeting deadlines. If her writing does not stand the test of time—and that is not a foregone conclusion—her life stands as an example to writers and would-be writers, especially women who want their work to be taken seriously.

Kevin Starr mentions Atherton primary as an early feminist, and perhaps that is where history will finally place her. She visited England on purpose to meet women who were agitating for equal rights, and turned her experience into the novel Julia France and her Times before returning to California in 1912 to participate in the first election in which women of this state could vote.

Earlier, in 1901, while writing the biography of Alexander Hamilton, she unearthed the story of his mother, Rachael Fawcett Levine (or Lavien), married to John Michael Lavien at the time Alexander was conceived. Rachael served a jail sentence for adultery, married John Hamilton, Alexander’s father, and died at the age of 32. Before leaving the island of Nevis in the British West Indies, Gertrude searched for Rachael’s grave and, finding none, had a monument erected to her, identifying her as Hamilton’s mother, on the grounds of the Lytton Grange house “in a glade below the St. Croix hilltop.”

When Ina Coolbrith lost everything in the fire following the earthquake of 1906, Gertrude Atherton organized an Author’s Reading to be held at the reopened Fairmont Hotel, an event which raised one thousand dollars and enabled Coolbrith to purchase land for a new home. Atherton also lost her original family home on Rincon hill in that fire, but by that time she had made homes everywhere, and it was no great loss to her.

Few landmarks remain from her years in California. The town of Atherton in northern California is named after her husband’s family, and that is where she lived as a young married woman, although the house no longer stands. Her ashes rest in the Cypress Lawn columbarium at Colma, far from the Atherton family crypt. Villa Montalvo, built near Saratoga in 1912 by James Phelan, mayor of San Francisco and U.S. Senator, was her home away from home while he was living, and it is now a semi-public home to artists and the arts.

Atherton memorial at Lafayette Park, San Francisco

In San Francisco, one house remains, 1990 California at Octavia. Built for Atherton’s mother-in-law Dominga, the house is reputed to be haunted with the spirits of strong women. Sharp-eyed Don Herron reports on a plaque in Lafayette Park near the junction of Octavia and Washington commemorating Gertrude Atherton’s life.

No author exists alone. Every writer depends upon the literacy of the general public and the proficiency of writers who went before. Gertrude Atherton, limited in sympathy and in depth, nonetheless showed that a woman could earn her living by the pen and that being born on the Pacific margin of the United States was not an impediment to publication in New York and London. Native daughters from Joan Didion to Amy Tan owe something to her pioneering spirit.

Back to the author index